If you’ve seen Apocalypse Now a few times, you start to tense up when you hear Chief say “Sampan off the port bow” at 1:15:35. You know that what’s about to happen is going to be deeply unpleasant.
In Hearts of Darkness, Sam Bottoms says:
Francis had us write up lists of things that we wanted our characters to do. And I remember that we all decided that we wanted to do a sort of a My Lai massacre … an interrogation of a boat that ended in a firefight and the loss of many lives. We wanted to experience something like that.
Which is sort of a strange way to put it, but I take his point; they thought it would be illuminating to imagine the circumstances under which such an incident might take place. Coppola liked the idea, so they put together this scene, which is not in the original script.
According to The Wikipedia, “The My Lai Massacre was the Vietnam War mass murder of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. It was committed by the U.S. Army soldiers from the Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division. Victims included women, men, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated.” My Lai became a turning point in the Vietnam war, not in a military sense, but in terms of public opinion; for many Americans, it crystallized their unease about the war.
Likewise, the sampan incident is a turning point in Apocalypse Now. It is a tragedy that could easily have been avoided; Willard asks the Chief to ignore protocol and keep moving, but Chief insists on searching the boat in case it is carrying supplies for the Vietcong. This seems to be part of a pattern of Chief making perfectly reasonable decisions that have disastrous results, not unlike Captain Dallas in Alien. (more…)
Another interstitial section, but this one has a slightly different tone. The boat has gone farther up the river and deeper into no-man’s-land, and the sense of menace is palpable. Everyone seems a little jumpy when they encounter another boat, but it turns out to contain friendlies, one of whom shoots the moon at our boys. It is followed by another boat that ups the ante prankwise, tossing a burning flare onto the PBR’s canopy.
This is a little over the top as pranks go; the flare starts a fire, there are a few panicky moments, and soon Lance is covering the roof of the boat with palm fronds like it was Sukkot or something. But the real importance of this event is not the damage it causes; rather it sets the stage for what is to come the next time the PBR encounters another boat. Back in high school we used to call this foreshadowing, if I remember correctly. (more…)
“Sending girls like me to Vietnam to entertain the troops is like teasing a caged lion with a piece of raw meat.” — Raquel Welch
This is one of the most unsettling scenes in Apocalypse Now; it is the proverbial dream that turns into a nightmare. At first the boat seems to have drifted into some sort of shangri-la; we see lighted domes and giant glowing columns that look like lipstick tubes. “This sho nuff is a bizarre sight in the middle of this shit,” says Mr. Clean with his usual understated eloquence.
At ground level, the place looks like a Vietnam War Costco, stocked with everything a soldier might dream of, from motorcycles to centerfolds to liquor. Chef asks the supply sergeant for Panama Red — not just weed, specifically Panama Red — and the guy says sure, no problem. The one thing they do have a little trouble getting is what they’re actually there for, fuel for the boat. Willard has to grab the sergeant by the collar and throw him around a little bit to get his attention; oddly, he seems to enjoy it, and responds with free booze and press box tickets to the upcoming show.
Ah, yes, the show; a very loud bar band cranks out a tasty version of “Suzie Q” as a copter lands and out steps Bill Graham himself, ideally cast in the role of MC/pimp. He tries to whip up some excitement, but the response is lukewarm until the crowd sees what he has brought them: girls. (more…)
This brief interstitial scene doesn’t really belong with the sequences immediately before or after it. It’s more a continuation of the scene just before the mango-tiger incident, with Willard reviewing the dossier on Kurtz as the rest of the crew relaxes.
The information given here starts to fill in the the nuances of Kurtz’s situation. He is a brilliant if stubborn officer who has “gotten off the boat,” i.e., started doing things his own way and getting results, but stepping on toes in the process. Willard admits in so many words that he is starting to admire the man he is supposed to kill.
As much as anything, this scene is a showcase for the movie’s design department, who put together all the documents seen here and many more. Peter Cowie says that they created “tax returns for Kurtz, a driver’s license for his putative wife, Janet, and countless letters from the colonel to his wife and son.” None of these actually appear in the film, except for a single letter, but one must admire the attention to detail.
However, as a professional editor, I am compelled to point out that this scene contains a glaring error that bothers me every time I hear it. Re Kurtz taking airborne training, Willard says “The next youngest guy in his class was half his age,” when he really means “The next oldest guy in his class was half his age.” Oh well, nobody’s perfect.
After all the noise and bad craziness of the Kilgore scenes, things quiet down a bit here as the boat begins moving upriver. Chief is piloting, presumably, as Clean, Lance, and Chef enjoy a smoke, while Willard retreats to his little hideaway to partake of his preferred intoxicant, good old alcohol.
For a moment things seem almost peaceful, but there is a sense of foreboding too. We are heading now into the heart of darkness, beginning the journey backward in time. We hear Chef saying:
I’m not here. I’m walking through the jungle looking for mangoes.
Which is an echo, apparently, of dialogue from the set, where the actors were going bonkers from being stuck in the Philippines for so long. In Hearts of Darkness Frederic Forrest says:
We felt like, after awhile, we really weren’t there. It was like you were in a dream or something…. We’d say to Francis, I’m not here Francis, I’m in Montana with Jack Nicholson. So they’d say “Where are you today, Freddie?” I’d be in Waco, I could be in Des Moines, wherever I wanted to be. And you would just go through your day — you weren’t in that place.
The aerial attack sequence, set to the tune of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” is one for which Apocalypse Now is justly famous. In a way it is the emotional high point of the movie; it is certainly the most adrenalized scene, the one time we get a glimpse into the other side of war — the exciting part — and start to understand what makes a gung-ho lunatic like Kilgore tick.
Kilgore refers to the music as “Psy War Op,” or psychological warfare operations. I have written before about the military use of music, but in that case it was for torture; this is more a form of intimidation. “Ride of the Valkyries” is stirring, aggressive, and very Western; you can imagine how it might be a little scary in this context. And the fact that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer adds a whole other layer, a minor-key overtone.
Combined with the visual (literal) pyrotechnics, it makes for pretty exciting cinema. Once the action starts, this scene is not unlike the Death Star attack in Star Wars, except that these are (admittedly heavily armed) peasant farmers who are being shot at, not Imperial Stormtroopers. It’s horrible too, of course. In a matter of minutes a peaceful-looking village where children are playing is turned into a theater of carnage. Minutes after that, Kilgore has his troops on the ground and orders his designated surfers to change. Here is a man who brings new meaning to the phrase “work hard, play hard.” (more…)